Bottlenose dolphins extending their season off New Jersey

Dolphin 56, first branded in Florida in 1979, has not been sighted for more than a year, sparking a national watch for the 40- to 45-year-old bottlenose dolphin. It has made the trip from Florida to New Jersey every year for decades.

Bottlenose dolphins have returned to New Jersey's coastal waters months earlier than normal.

And that's good news for South Jersey's eco-tourism industry. Around here, dolphins mean money.

The Cape May Whale Watcher, a charter fleet based at the Miss Chris Marina in Lower Township, saw its first near-shore bottlenose dolphins on March 16 off Cape May in 38-degree water - chilly by dolphin standards.

"I thought, 'That's impossible,'" owner Capt. Jeff Stewart said.

Stewart, of Lower Township, said dolphins normally prefer water temperatures of 50 degrees or warmer. Typically, they arrive between April and May.

The local populations of dolphins - those commonly seen from the beaches - stayed in South Jersey through Thanksgiving last year, nearly two months later than normal. New Jersey's dolphins typically spend the winter in warmer waters off North Carolina.

"I don't think they migrated that far this year," Stewart said. "If they did, they didn't stick around very long."

His two whale-watching boats see common dolphins and white-sided dolphins nearly year-round far off the coast of New Jersey. But the local population of bottlenose dolphins returns to the same beaches in late spring to give birth and enjoy the local supply of fish: mackerel, herring and flounder.

Bob Schoelkopf, director of the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine, said his staff observed unusual behavior in seals this winter as well.

"We're seeing earlier calving of gray and harbor seals - about a month early. As a result more youngsters show up here in New Jersey," he said.

"I think it's definitely a climate-induced change. We're seeing earlier seasons for the animals coming in here to the center," he said.

Regardless of the cause, local eco-tourism operators said they welcomed the dolphins back like old friends.

"It's definitely better for business. We're definitely about marine mammals," said Capt. Matt Remuzzi, of Cape May, one of the boat captains at the Cape May Whale Watch & Research Center in Lower Township.

"They normally come back when the water is about 55 degrees," he said. "The water is still in the 40s. It's rare to see them this early."

Remuzzi said the dolphins are probably just going where there is food.

"They come to our area to feed and mate," he said.

The dolphins sometimes follow baitfish right into the surf along the steep-sloped Cape May Point beaches.

Remuzzi said his whale-watch company will conduct more research this year to catalogue local populations of dolphins to help improve the understanding of their migration patterns.

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